SANTA BARBARA Greivis Vasquez was never going to be the next great Venezuelan baseball player. He discovered this at a very young age, or right about the time he was handed a glove, positioned in center field and bored out of his mind.
"Who hits the ball out there when you're a little kid?" Vasquez asked the other day. "Baseball is the most popular sport in my country. Miguel Cabrera, look at how famous he is. But for me, it was too slow."
Too much sitting around still makes him crazy. Even in the most spectacular of settings, in a hotel lobby with the doors and windows open and welcoming the cooling, soothing rhythms of the Pacific Ocean, the Kings' new point guard prefers to be on the move. His right hand swipes at the bottom of his shoe; his left hand picks at a fingernail. He leans back, leans forward, crosses one leg, crosses the other leg. And he smiles. He never seems to stop smiling.
See, it all makes sense now, Vasquez explains. His love of the game. His obsession with the Kings. His dream of playing in California. His trade to Sacramento. His destiny.
"When I was a kid in Caracas, all over television, it was Jason Williams and the Sacramento Kings," Vasquez, 26, says in rapid bursts of speech. "I was their big fan. Then they traded for Mike Bibby and went to the conference finals. Peja, Vlade, C-Webb, Doug Christie. It was so much fun to watch, especially Jason Williams. I used to practice all his moves down on the street, in front of my building. That's when everything started to come together for me. I just knew at some point I was going to be in California, and playing for the Kings, so I feel very blessed."
Finally, Vasquez slows and catches his breath, his passion ebbing ever so briefly.
"But my journey has not been easy," he adds, quietly.
Acquired from the New Orleans Pelicans in the Tyreke Evans swap, and the presumed starter at point guard, Vasquez grew up in a working-class neighborhood with his parents and an older brother, and never far from danger. When his basketball skills became too advanced for the makeshift rim and backboard downstairs, he started seeking better competition. Barely into his teens, he traveled by bus all over Caracas, often venturing into the most violent and drug-infested areas.
"I never told my mother I was going into the barrios," said Vasquez, "because she would have been very upset. But that's where the best players were. Sometimes those guys would look at me like, 'Who is this? What is he doing here?' It was tough, always outdoor courts, like street games. But I needed to be in those places to get better."
During his brief experience with Venezuela's national team program, Vasquez caught the attention of Masai Ujiri, the Toronto Raptors' general manager who at the time was running a college recruiting service. Ujiri recommended Vasquez to the coaches at Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md., a prep school with a large international presence and one very prominent athlete already on the roster: Kevin Durant.
Initially, Vasquez says, he was torn. He was only 16. His parents recently had divorced. He also spoke virtually no English and knew even less about Maryland. And though a strapping 6-foot-6 prospect with flair and feistiness, he was about two inches shorter than projected.
"The biggest thing was getting him acclimated," said former Montrose assistant David Adkins, now an assistant with the Maryland women's program. "We had two years to get him ready (for college). We had him living in a house run by a Colombian woman, which helped. We gave him tutoring at school and were able to offer him outside tutoring as well. But Greivis is very determined and appreciative of everything. When I picked him up at the airport, we went to McDonald's. I think he knew five words in English. Then he said, 'Now when are we going to train?' That's who he is. He constantly works at improving."
During his two seasons at Montrose and four years as the starting point guard at Maryland, Vasquez continued fine-tuning his skills. He tightened his ballhandling and began dribbling closer to his body. Though neither particularly fast nor much of a leaper, he learned to anticipate his opponent's moves and better utilize his size and length.
But it's his floor game the combination of a pass-first mentality and precise passing that most appeals to the Kings. In his distinctive, expressive style, his features often contorting in emotion, he dictates tempo, passes ahead on fast breaks and threads balls through defenders with either hand.
"We always told the kids, 'Just get your feet set and your hands ready, because Greivis will find you,' " added Adkins. "He has always had that knack."
Vasquez, who played with a balky right ankle for most of last season and still is not 100 percent following surgery to remove bone spurs, nonetheless contributed numbers that should endear him to his new teammates: 13.9 points and 9.0 assists per game, third best in the league.
"I've never played with a pass-first point guard," noted DeMarcus Cousins, "so it's interesting. Greivis' main thing is getting people easier shots, and I believe that's a special talent that not a lot of people have in this league. That's his gift. I'm happy to be playing with him."
Though Vasquez's contract ends at the end of this season, the fourth-year veteran is itching for an extended stay, both to facilitate the Kings' return to the elite and to further the game in his homeland. Carl Herrera and Oscar Torres are the only other Venezuelans to play in the NBA.
In the meantime, Vasquez has a bit of a transition to make. His jersey number isn't J-Will's 55.
"No. 10," he said, laughing. "Mike Bibby. It's an honor."
Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208, and follow her on Twitter@ailene_voisin.